Spoiler alert! With beautiful men and glamorous women, high-stakes narrative twists and thousands of bottomless martinis, it’s safe to say Mad Men might be the greatest show ever to air on television, but not for the reasons you might think. For all the sex appeal and nostalgia, it’s the more reflective side that strikes me as brilliant and sets the show apart from your average drama. During an era so consumed by fresh starts and new beginnings, death plays a surprisingly crucial role in the daily struggles of the characters. Death reveals itself in a variety ways throughout the seasons and the characters come to terms with their mortality with increasing complexity.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the suave male protagonist of the show, deals with the death of parents by drinking just as heavily (if not more) than his peers. Haunted by the fact his mother was a prostitute and died giving birth to him, it is easy to see in several episodes how this guilt escalates into binges and extramarital affairs. Although many viewers have regarded Draper’s promiscuous behavior with abhorrence, one could also make the argument that he flees to casual sex as a way of alleviating his fear of death in that brief moment of impulse-driven abandon. Indeed, we see many of the characters find comfort in short-lived office romances, one night stands, and reckless affairs, which could also point to a common coping mechanism used during a time of high conformity and emotional repression. Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Draper’s boss and cofounder of the Sterling Cooper ad agency, nearly dies of a heart attack during one sexual encounter, representing the irony of trying to escape mortality only to face the dangers of dealing with those anxieties on a superficial level.
The women of Mad Men also face many of the same struggles with their own mortality. Don’s wife, Betty Draper (January Jones), copes with the death of her mother through therapy, passive aggressive behavior, fantasies about affairs, and eventually a one-night stand. Betty might be one of the least understood characters on the show, due to her helpless, childlike persona and cold, indifferent demeanor. As a housewife mainly preoccupied with maintaining her appearance, Betty’s anxiety comes across subtly in moments where she appears trapped by her lifestyle and social expectations. She wants to live up to the expectations her mother’s generation established but faces household duties and motherhood with indifference. Watching her children grow, Betty regards her own age with increasing insecurity in a world where a woman’s value is largely based on her youthful appearance.
In addition to individual struggles with death, we watched as all of the characters dealt with the assassination of President Kennedy and the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe. Through these deaths, we see the ways in which people grieved during a time when grieving wasn’t openly addressed. Following the death of Draper’s closest and most trustworthy friend, he never once brings it up to his wife and only mentions it in passing to his daughter. He deals with the fear of never again feeling that close to anyone privately and seems to interact with these feelings only in his dreams. In this way, we sympathize with the alluring Don Draper because of his powerlessness in dealing with his own emotions.
By following these deeply personal and yet universal struggles, Mad Men not only serves as a visually stimulating form of entertainment but also as a timeless portrait of the human condition. We fear death, enjoy sex, and appreciate the beauty of the world that surrounds us. From these basic qualities, we can relate to the show’s characters and reflect upon our own uncertainties about life and death.
Look out for Mad Men Season 5, which airs March 2012 on AMC